Can China Save the Amur Tiger?

When Dale Miquelle first went to work with Amur (or Siberian) tigers in the Russian Far East in 1992, wildlife experts expected that the subspecies would be extinct by the end of the 20th century. The population had dipped to as low as 30 individuals in the 1940s before rebounding as a result of strict Soviet wildlife management, to about 200 to 300 animals in the early 1990s. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, taking almost all environmental enforcement down with it. As the ruble and the Far East economy went into free-fall, the tiger’s prey species, including deer and wild boar, often wound up in the dinner pots of hungry locals. Commercial poachers targeted the tigers themselves, selling the carcasses for $5,000 or more to the traditional-medicine market just over the border in China. 

It was hardly an auspicious time to start the Siberian Tiger Project, a joint Russian-American effort now managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Or maybe it was the best possible time, because 17 years and more than $10 million later, Panthera tigris altaica survives, with a population estimated at 350 to 400 individuals in the wild. This relative success comes against a backdrop of dramatic decline in tiger populations elsewhere. In India this summer, for instance, Panna Nature Reserve announced that its tigers have been completely wiped out by poaching, following the pattern established at Sariska, another prominent Indian nature reserve, in 2005. Tigers worldwide have vanished from 41 percent of the habitat they occupied as recently as 1999, according to a recent study. The total tiger population in the wild is now about 4,500 animals, down from 100,000 a century ago.  

So Miquelle, a 1976 Yale College gradu-ate who now heads the WCS Russian program, remains at best cautiously optimistic. He lists three major threats to Amur tigers that never seem to go away—poaching, to supply the lucrative traditional-medicine market; depletion of prey species by hunters; and habitat loss due to a combination of logging, mining, urban expansion and a new highway development likely to split off a key part of the remaining tiger population. These threats come on top of a relatively low reproductive rate and an extremely low level of genetic diversity. (You can find more Amur tigers, and more varied DNA, in zoos than in the wild.) Altogether, it means that no one is likely to declare the Amur tiger back from the brink anytime soon.  

But the Amur tiger now seems to stand the best chance of survival among all the tiger subspecies, says John Seidensticker, a Smithsonian zoologist and chair of the Save the Tiger Fund Council. That’s both a tribute to the persistence of the Russian-American effort and, he admits, a red flag in the face of India and other Asian nations, where talk about conservation often exceeds results for extremely endangered tiger populations. “I think the Amur tiger has a very good chance of survival if we continue to maintain a high level of political will to support it, and with [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin’s new interest, that looks good.”

Putin has made the Amur tiger a symbol of his own status as the strong man of modern Russia. In 2008, he went out with a Siberian Tiger Project team and took the delicate job of firing a tranquilizer dart at a tiger caught in one of the team’s leg snares. (Box traps, a safer method of trapping large predators, have not worked with skittish Amur tigers.) No one filmed the shooting, but a Russian television crew claimed that the tiger broke loose and charged before Putin brought it down. Then Putin helped radio-collar the animal. “Putin the tiger tamer,” as the BBC billed him, is now planning to host other heads of state from Asian tiger countries for a fall 2010 Global Tiger Summit. World Bank President Robert Zoellick has also pledged his support for the session in Vladivostok. That kind of top-level summit could lead to improvements for tiger conservation across Asia.   

But 2010 promises to be a good year for the Amur tiger in particular, with the potential for dramatic expansion of habitat and population. Conservationists and the World Bank are currently working with Chinese officials on a plan to invest in tiger recovery in the same way China committed to panda conservation 30 years ago. That campaign resulted in dramatic improvements for pandas—and a sorely needed environmental success story for China. A similar effort now on behalf of the Amur tiger could restore the subspecies to northeastern China, where it is for all practical purposes extinct, and simultaneously provide a sustainable economic return by revitalizing what is now a badly damaged forest. Noting that 2010 is the year of the tiger in the Chinese calendar, a World Bank official suggests that Chinese leaders attending the Global Tiger Summit are “going to be on the spot to have a story to tell.” 

The likely backdrop for that story is a vast expanse of potential tiger habitat in Manchuria, on the border with Russia and North Korea. It’s now “empty forest,” badly degraded by past logging practices and largely devoid of wildlife, and a surprisingly sharp debate has recently broken out about how best to repopulate it. Doctoral student Xuemei Han ’07 and Chad Oliver ’70, Ph.D. ’75, Pinchot Professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies, have proposed fixing the forest to make it more habitable for the deer, boar and other ungulates the tigers require as prey. But Miquelle of WCS says the real problem is stopping people from poaching the prey that’s already there. Spending money on forest improvements, he says, is “like you know someone has cancer and you are treating them for an allergy.” Oliver, in turn, calls Miquelle’s resistance “a willful decision to reject science at the peril of the tiger … not unlike a doctor performing malpractice on a patient because he or she failed to understand a new medical discovery.” Understanding how the two sides could get so far apart, when both say they have the recovery of the Amur tiger at heart, requires knowing a bit more about the fierce nature of tigers—and the people who study them.

‘The Tiger is God’

The tiger has always had a visceral hold on the human imagination, because it is so massive and menacing and, yet, also so elusive, slipping like a flame through field and forest. Even tiger biologists almost never see the animals they study, though pug marks the size of grapefruits or territorial scratching 10 feet up a tree keep them abundantly alert to the hair-raising presence of tigers. So does the rising tock-tock on their headphones from an approaching radio collar. 

We tend to associate the species mainly with India because of the rich mythology and the colorful history of human coexist-ence with tigers there. For instance, the 18th-century Muslim ruler, Tipu Sultan, called himself “the Tiger of Mysore”; sat on a throne in the form of a tiger with fangs bared; sent his soldiers into battle in tiger-striped uniforms; and kept a life-size action figure of a tiger mauling a British soldier, complete with tiger snarls and agonized screaming. His motto was “The tiger is God.” 

But tigers also once lived from eastern Turkey all the way to Japan and inhabited an extraordinary range of latitudes, from almost 10 degrees south of the equator on the Indonesian island of Bali to 55 degrees north in the Manchuria region of northeastern China. They also managed to thrive in habitats ranging from sea level tropical rainforests to 10,000 feet up in the Himalayas of Bhutan. Naturalists have traditionally divided tigers into eight subspecies, of which three—the Javan, Caspian and Balinese—went extinct in recent decades. But the differences between some of these subspecies are minor and the tax-onomy has often been the subject of dispute. 

Early this year, for instance, a study of mitochondrial DNA from Caspian tiger museum specimens showed that they were essentially identical with the Amur tiger, differing by only a single nucleotide. Oxford’s Carlos Driscoll and his co-authors theorized that ancestral tigers migrated into Central Asia from China less than 10,000 years ago via the Gansu Corridor (better known as the Silk Road), then spread west to Turkey and east to Siberia. The study added to the critical importance of the surviving population in the Russian Far East by classifying Amur tigers as suitable for reintroduction not just in northeastern China, but all the way across Central Asia to the Caspian Sea. But another study this year also suggested that the value of this population may be imperiled by a genetic divide along geographic lines.

“We were hoping she would die of old age, but she died the way most tigers die, killed by a poacher.” Dale Miquelle

Amur tigers now coexist with humans in a largely forested area roughly the size of England and Wales. Their habitat starts at the Chinese border a little southwest of Vladivostok and runs 600 miles north to the Amur River. It’s bounded on the west by the Ussuri River, a tributary of the Amur. In the east, the tigers mostly roam the slopes of the Sikhote-Alin coastal mountain range running down to the Sea of Japan. Only about 10 percent of the Amur tiger’s range is protected, with the Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik (or reserve) encompassing a mountainous area the size of Glacier National Park. Fewer than 20 tigers (and a slightly larger population of endangered Amur leopards) also survive along the Chinese border in the Kedrovaya Pad Zapovednik, which is about as big as Washington, D.C.

The two populations are separated by development along a highway corridor connecting the major cities of Vladivostok and Ussuriysk in the south and Khabarovsk in the north. Genetic research led by Michael Russello at the University of British Columbia has recently found extremely low levels of genetic diversity in both populations. Not only are the tigers descended from a handful of ancestors in the 1940s, but they also experienced a population bottleneck about 10,000 years ago. “So they have lived with a lack of genetic diversity for a long time,” says Russello, who began his tiger research as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale in the laboratory of co-author Gisella Caccone, a senior research scientist at Yale. But what’s most alarming about the results, he says, is that the small southern population, regarded as the natural source for reintroduction of tigers into China, is now almost completely isolated. 

“One of the things that really jumps out,” says Russello, “is the need to establish a connection between Sikhote-Alin and the southwestern population.” Instead, the Russian government is now developing a new highway from the Vladivostok-Ussuriysk corridor to the Chinese border. After extensive lobbying by conservationists, officials recently agreed to preserve at least a vestige of corridor between the two populations by burying a stretch of highway in a tunnel—the first time that sort of accommodation of wildlife has happened in Russia.

Assuming the southwestern population remains healthy, the larger question is how to help the tigers expand back into China, where they are now welcome, despite a 1993 ban on the tiger bone trade, mainly as an ingredient in folk nostrums for erectile dysfunction and other human maladies.

Along China’s Manchurian border with Russia and North Korea, the forest extends for 28,000 square miles (73,000 square kilometers), of which about 3,861 square miles (10,000 square kilometers), an area two-thirds the size of Connecticut, is cat-egorized as tiger habitat. Russian tigers already occasionally make the crossing into this habitat. But they tend either to prey on cattle there or to leave with, what Rudyard Kipling once described as, “the dry, angry, snarly, singsong whine of a tiger who has caught nothing and does not care if all the jungle knows it.” There’s nothing much to catch, according to Miquelle, because East Manchuria’s impoverished human population traps anything that moves. But Han and Oliver contend that it’s also because heavy logging up into the 1980s has left the forest structure too dense for most prey species. The fate of the tiger may hang on the outcome of their disagreement.

Poaching Versus Poor Habitat

A native of the Boston suburbs, Miquelle came to Yale in the early 1970s for its English department. But an introductory biology class taught by mammalogist John Kirsch got him excited enough to switch his major. Steve Berwick, a predator specialist then teaching at F&ES, helped steer him into a career as a wildlife biologist. Miquelle earned his doctorate at the University of Idaho, where Maurice Hornocker was pioneering the use of radio telemetry to track mountain lions and other large preda-tors. When Russian scientists invited Hornocker to help launch the Siberian Tiger Project, he enlisted Miquelle to begin trapping and radio-collaring the most elusive tiger in the world. Though he was reluctant at first, Miquelle wound up not only loving the work, but marrying a Russian woman and making a home in the small coastal town of Terney, just outside Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik.

In the years since, he and his Russian colleagues have used radio collars to track the movements of about 60 tigers. The work has routinely involved getting close enough to an angry tiger caught in a snare to hit it with a tranquilizer dart, then getting much closer, in the hope that the tranquilizer dose will be adequate to keep the animal down while they collar it and take measurements and specimens. At times, it’s also meant tracking a tiger from a rickety Soviet-era helicopter at treetop height, then dropping down on a wire to work with the more-or-less tranquilized animal on the ground.

The average range of tigers in the Russian Far East is huge—600 square miles (1,554 square kilometers) for males and just under half that for females. The frustrations of the work can also be monumental for other reasons: The team tracked one female named Olga for 13 years, during which she gave birth six times and reared at least six cubs to maturity. “We were hoping she would die of old age,” says Miquelle, “but she died the way most tigers die, killed by a poacher.” Another study animal turned up dead on the highway. In spite of all that, says Seidensticker, the Siberian Tiger Project has put together “one of the most complete portraits of a large predator that we have. What Dale has done with his Russian colleagues in terms of understanding the tiger is nothing short of miraculous.”

So it’s a little startling to hear Chad Oliver, a soft-spoken silviculturalist who heads the Yale Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry, say that when it comes to restoring tigers to their former habitat in Manchuria, Miquelle is taking an approach that’s not just wrong, but wrong in a way that “could lead the Amur tiger to extinction.” The dispute came to a head this summer as the World Bank was drafting a major Amur tiger recovery plan for northeasterm China.

To get tigers back to China, Miquelle, the F&ES team and the World Bank all focus on restoring the population of deer, wild boar and other prey species. A single tiger needs to eat 50 or so ungulates a year to survive. So no ungulates means no tigers, or tigers that are forced to prey on livestock. Oliver, Han and their colleagues want to improve the badly degraded forest so that it produces more of the acorns and pine nuts on which ungulates feed and includes the kinds of open space or cover that different ungulate species prefer. But Miquelle points out that China has yet to take the essential first step of stopping the ubiquitous poaching of ungulates for the dinner pot. Even in the Hunchun Tiger Leopard Reserve on the Russian border, cheap snares made of wire or plastic strips are everywhere. An annual volunteer day has removed 10,000 of them from the reserve since 2001. 

“You can do all the forestry treatments you want and not increase prey numbers if poaching is not addressed,” Miquelle told World Bank officials. “On the other hand, if you address poaching as your top priority, ungulates will increase quite dramatically, with or without forest treatments.”  

At first glance, the tone of the dispute seems to echo the temperament of the animal. Naturalist lore says that big-predator researchers often take on the fierceness and territoriality of the animals they study. Thus when Oliver and Han first asked for detailed data from the Amur tiger radio-tracking studies, Miquelle declined. Han’s colleagues on the study included Jianping Ge from Beijing Normal University, where Han earned her master’s degree, and Qingxi Guo from China’s Northeast Forestry University. The team, says Miquelle, seemed “interested only in how much they can extract from other organizations for their own relatively narrow interests” and offered little likelihood of collaboration to “maximize conservation impact.” Han protests that the team has, in fact, already collaborated with World Wildlife Fund researchers and would also gladly do so with Miquelle and WCS.

Oliver characterizes it as a clash not so much between personalities, or nationalities, as between environmental paradigms. As zoologists, Miquelle and his allies “may not realize that they are dealing with an outdated scientific paradigm,” Oliver told the World Bank. The preservationist approach, which became widespread in the 1960s, regards all forests as good for wildlife, a dense forest as even better, and all human intervention, particularly in the form of logging, as almost automatically bad. The guiding idea is that forests should be left to grow to their mature climax stage, achieving a more-or-less steady state sometimes characterized as “the balance of nature.” 

Oliver is a leading exponent of an alternative paradigm, which also got its start in the mid-20th century. It holds that no such thing as a balance of nature exists. Disturbance and turmoil, in the form of fire, wind, disease and drought, are normal, and the natural result is a mosaic of structures, from open savanna to old growth. A healthy forest is dynamic, not stable, with tree stands of varying types and ages. Many environmentalists now accept this paradigm, at least intellectually. But the preservationist paradigm still has a hold on their hearts, or on the realpolitik corners of their brains. The sticking point for them is that they mistrust the proposed remedies of logging, controlled burning and other forms of active management to make damaged forests healthy again. 

But clinging to “the steady-state paradigm” and letting damaged forests simply grow back on their own can be disastrous, says Oliver. In California in the 1970s, for instance, state wildlife officials suppressed fires and allowed bog and grasslands to grow into dense forest. But the lotis blue butterfly, a species endemic to a small coastal area of Mendocino County, needed open space, not forest, and the loss of habitat may have pushed it to extinction. More recently, the predisposition to regard closed forest as the only productive habitat led a wildlife biologist in Florida to assume that the severely endangered Florida panther was a “forest obligate” that would not cross about 300 feet (90 meters) of nonforest habitat. Over the years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relied on the biologist’s data to formulate its species recovery plan and to make development decisions affecting 38,484 acres of panther habitat. Then it turned out that the biologist had simply discarded almost half his radio-tracking data, because evidence that the panthers were using open swampland didn’t fit with his forest hypothesis.  

A steady-state approach could also be catastrophic for Amur tiger recovery in northeastern China, according to Han, Oliver and their co-authors. The region experienced intensive logging from the 1890s up through the end of the Cultural Revolution. The result is that most forests there are now young and dense, a tangle of pencil-thin saplings crowded together with shrubby undergrowth, says Han, who surveyed the forests on foot and supplemented what she saw with analysis of official inventory data and satellite imagery.    

A regimen of thinning and controlled burning would dramatically accelerate the move away from the current dense and depopulated habitat, according to Oliver. Freeing up overcrowded oaks and pines would help them grow faster, resulting, after as little as five to 10 years, in increased production of acorns and pine nuts. Clear-cuts would provide critical savanna habitat. “If we do nothing,” says Oliver, “the dense forest will still be there after 50 years.”

Unfortunately, no studies exist to say how many ungulates different forest structures in the region could support or how that would affect the Amur tiger’s recovery there. Han hopes to gather that data with a pilot project through China’s State Forestry Administration, equivalent to the U.S. Forest Service. Based on data from other tiger populations, she and her co-authors assume that the current dense forest structure supports about 6.1 ungulates per square kilometer. For a hungry Amur tiger, that translates into a minimum home range of 288 square miles (745 square kilometers)—about 14 times bigger than the city of New Haven. By contrast, the tiger could get by with about half that home range in a complex forest, combining mature trees with a healthy understory, which would support 14 ungulates. Open habitat would support 41 ungulates. From a tiger’s perspective, that’s almost seven times as much food as in dense structure, enabling it to thrive in a home range of just 43 square miles (112 square kilometers)—about two New Havens.   

Han’s proposed pilot study would affect an area of about 71 square miles (185 square kilometers), meaning “you’d have trouble finding it” in the overall forest, says Oliver. But the study needs tiger and ungulate experts, like Miquelle, to help plan the best mix of open space with closed forest, or of hiding cover and browsing cover. “Do you want long, winding clear-cuts, or do you want a big square clear-cut?” Oliver asks. The first might be suitable for prey species that like to stay close to an edge, so they can run back into the forest. The second might be better for species that like lots of open space so they can see a threat in time to get away.

The Siberian Tiger Project has accumulated a rich database on the different habitat needs of tiger prey species—too rich, in truth, to support the idea that Miquelle is simply following an outdated environmental paradigm. He acknowledges, for instance, that “Sika deer and roe deer are associated with broken forests/grassland/agricultural complexes,” so the treatments being proposed by the F&ES team “would presumably help them.” But red deer are a more important prey for tigers, and for them, says Miquelle, “Mature oak and Korean pine forests are needed—not thinned forests and savannas.” 

Pending the outcome of pilot studies, the World Bank team endorsed “targeted measures to help create a more diversified and interlaced forest structure,” along the lines proposed by the F&ES team.

The issue may not be the paradigm itself but skepticism that China can bring off an active management regimen in a way that actually benefits wildlife. Miquelle worries, for instance, that new openings in the forest will create habitat not for deer but for domestic livestock. Even in Hunchun Tiger Leopard Reserve, local people graze their cattle “right up to the border with Russia.” And if officials are already failing to keep livestock out of a relatively small protected area, then “how are you going to keep cattle out of a multiple-use forest? In such a scenario, you will be investing millions to improve grazing conditions for domestic livestock.”

But to Oliver, this is like saying: “We don’t believe the decision-makers can do it right, so we’ll tell them it is not scientifically sound to do.”

What China Could Do

What’s the likely outcome of the dispute? Carter Brandon, the World Bank’s lead environmental specialist in Beijing, points out that the disagreement thus far has consisted of dueling emails, a medium notoriously prone to conflict and miscommunication. “If they were in the same room and stepped down from the level of general principles, they might well agree,” he says. Even in the limited context of emailing, Oliver recently acknowledged that Miquelle is “right that nothing will work if poaching and snares are not controlled.” 

China is likely to invest millions in its northeastern forests regardless of such disagreements among outside experts. Its booming economy is woefully short on timber, putting heavy pressure on forests elsewhere in Asia. It’s also increasingly aware of how that affects its reputation abroad. “The concerns of those global environmentalists who watch China have shifted from the decline in China’s natural forests to China’s impact on the eroding natural forests in places like Indonesia and Russian Siberia,” a Chinese forestry research team recently reported. Revitalizing domestic forests is already a national priority and, in the northeastern forests, the report concluded that “a sustainable expansion in harvests, more than three times the current level, is not unreasonable.” The likelihood of that expansion will make the search for common ground on behalf of the Amur tiger more urgent. 

In May, Brandon led a World Bank reconnaissance mission in Manchuria to help develop an Amur tiger recovery plan. It proposed an expansion of snare removal programs and antipoaching patrols, limits on access to domestic livestock and an end to the harvest of nontimber forest products like Korean pine nuts. Pending the outcome of pilot studies, the World Bank team also endorsed “targeted measures to help create a more diversified and interlaced forest structure,” along the lines proposed by the F&ES team, and “minor resettlement” of people now living in the area. Finally, the team recommended vastly increasing the area of potential tiger habitat, up to as much as 19,300 square miles (50,000 square kilometers)—three times the size of the state of Connecticut. “The objective would be to establish China as a world leader in tiger conservation.”

Brandon says the scale of these proposed changes is in line with forestry and conservation projects already being undertaken elsewhere in China. His team loosely estimated the cost of Amur tiger recovery and forestry improvements at between $50 million and $100 million over five years. Funding would come in the form of grants from the Global Environment Facility, an international partnership that pays for biodiversity and other improvements in areas of global biological importance, and World Bank loans.

At present, Brandon says, northeastern China is “a forestry slum,” good for neither wildlife nor people. Many of its residents are former forestry employees who have no work, because the damaged forests no longer produce any economically valuable timber. They’re trapped, along with the remaining tigers, in a vicious circle, with hungry human residents going into the forest to steal ungulates from tigers, and starving tigers coming into agricultural areas to steal livestock from humans. Many families “are apparently willing to move,” according to the World Bank team, making relocation less problematic. 

Changing the culture of the northeastern forests, says Brandon, will entail “social and ecological disruption—no, that’s too strong. Let’s say ‘analysis and change.’” But by investing in sustainable methods now, China could position the northeastern forests to produce “a reasonable rate of return” beginning in 50 years and continuing permanently thereafter. It’s a long time horizon. But “what they have now,” he says, “is worthless.” What they could have instead is a huge forest with a few protected areas surrounded by a mixed-use landscape “that can support both sustainable forestry production and tiger habitat.”

What they could also have, where India and other Asian nations have failed, is the right to claim that China saved the tiger.

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Top of Page | Fall 2009 | environment:YALE